Review: “Dreams from My Father” by Barack Obama

I went into this book looking for the “old” Obama, who one gets the impression was perhaps more radical before he started to compromise in order to win elections. It seems, though, that this is an illusion, and he was never really on the left in the first place. Obama has a good knack for making everyone think he agrees with them. In reality, when you re-read what he actually said, you find he avoids taking non-conventional positions (1). Ultimately this book is a long series of avoidance.No doubt it is an enjoyable read. It is thoughtful, accessible and interesting. He avoids giving easy answers to the many questions he poses on race, identity and society in general. For the most part, it is also quite humbly written. The middle section of the book recounting his time working in Chicago’s South Side leaves you with the sneaking suspicion that he actually achieved more than he recounts. This could be false modesty on Obama’s part, but the focus on the shortcomings and disappointments of his work as a community organiser makes a refreshing change from the self-glorification of most political memoirs.

However, all is not what it seems. The book was written before be became a politician, and he mentions in the new forward to the 2004 edition that there were a few things he would not have written now, but that he decided to leave the book basically as it was, even though they are politically inconvenient (p. ix — incidentally it would be interesting to get hold of an original 1995 edition of the book to see what changes were made). This is presumably a reference to things that Republican opponents could theoretically use for campaign ammunition, like his college drug use and his Black Nationalist acquaintances (horror of all horrors, he even admits while in Chicago to buying Louis Farrakhan’s newspaper “occasionally” (p. 201)). Look at things from another perspective though, and it seems pretty obvious that Obama decided to “come clean” about these things early on so as to sidestep such attacks. This was a smart move, as it mostly seems to have worked — for example, past drug use was never an issue in the presidential election.

He gives little indication that he wanted to be become a politician. He says he wanted to bring a new legal expertise from Harvard “like Promethean fire” (p. 276) back to the South Side to continue to fight on behalf of local communities. To be fair, he did return to Chicago after law school.

Evidence abounds, though, that Obama was thinking of becoming a politician as early on as the late 1980s, and certainly before Dreams From My Father was published. Writing in the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza says “Obama was writing ‘Dreams’ at the moment that he was preparing for a life in politics, and he launched his book and his first political campaign simultaneously, in the summer of 1995″ (2). This seems credible, and for all its honesty, Dreams should still be read with a proverbial pinch of salt, perhaps not so much in what it claims as what it omits. For example in recounting the part of his childhood spent in Indonesia, he mentions the huge massacres orchestrated by the dictator Suharto as he came to power in a military coup in 1965-66 (pp. 43-44:”The death toll was anybody’s guess: a few hundred thousand, maybe; half a million. Even the smart guys at the Agency had lost count” ). But he underplays the extent of CIA involvement: and more glaringly fails to mention that Suharto was supported by every US president from Nixon to Clinton (3).

The more I read this book, the more it became clear it is empty of conclusions. A memoir need not take political positions, but he poses so many questions and offers no answers. By the end of the book, you just find yourself wishing he would take a stand on something. Obama was clearly thinking more like a politician than a lawyer and wanted to avoid offending the wrong people. This fits well with his later “Change” and “Hope” slogans, which proved so popular precisely because they can pretty much mean what you want them to mean.

In summary then: a good read, and in fairness it raises some good points about about Black consciousness, Black Nationalism and race. But I can’t help but feel it is ultimately hollow, a politician building up his “narrative”.

(1) For example, his alleged past support for the Palestinians. While it does seem that he previously took a more balanced approach than his more recent conversion to the church of AIPAC, willing to hear from both Israelis and Palestinians, it is also true that he never made any concrete promises. See Ali Abunimah, “How Barack Obama learned to love Israel“, Electronic Intifada, 4 March 2007.

(2) Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago shaped Obama“, The New Yorker, 21 July 2008.

(3) See, for example, John Pilger, “Our model dictator“, The Guardian, 28 January 2008.

Reviewed 7 December 2008.

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